Bacon Publishes

Bacon’s Novum Organum established an impressive agenda for modern science and inspired the work of later groups, such as the Royal Society of London.

Summary of Event

Even by the standards of its age, Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620; English translation, 1802) was an outrageously ambitious book. England was still full of “Renaissance men” with the financial means to avoid narrow specializations and, in Bacon’s famous phrase, to take all knowledge for their province. A number of learned women thrived as well—including Bacon’s mother, who translated a religious work from Latin—and the next generation saw the emergence of “female virtuosos” such as the poet and chemist Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle. Bacon, however, undertook to organize the new learning and to mobilize the students for the monumental task of perfecting God’s creation. [kw]Bacon Publishes Novum Organum
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Novum Organum (Bacon)
Bacon, Francis

The first part of Bacon’s great plan was a survey of the arts and sciences. He made his preliminary survey in The Twoo Bookes of Francis Bacon of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Humane (1605; enlarged as De Augmentis Scientiarum, 1623; best known as Advancement of Learning
Advancement of Learning (Bacon) ), which he dedicated to the new king of England, James I James I (king of England) . In the treatise, he judged certain sciences to have reached a degree of “proficiency,” detailed the “deficiency” of others, and made recommendations for their improvement. It was like attempting to write an entire university catalog from scratch.

In 1620, the second part of his plan was ready, a description of his method for the brave new world of learning. He called his method the Novum Organum, or new system of rules, and in doing so, he announced that his method would replace the old rules. Ever since the rise of the universities in the Middle Ages, the six books of Aristotle’s logic had dominated the curriculum. Collectively known as the Organum or Organon, they were enshrined as the final authority in all debate under the Elizabethan Statutes at Cambridge University, where Bacon had studied. Aristotle’s logic was based on syllogism and on deduction from universal precepts to specific conclusions. Bacon’s method, by contrast, worked by induction from observations to axioms.

Bacon wrote in Latin so he could reach an international office. He planned a Latin translation of the Advancement of Learning and presented the Novum Organum as the second part of a vast work that he called the Instauratio Magna (great restoration). He explained that he wanted to help restore human knowledge to the condition that Adam was said to have had in Paradise, before the Fall, and to restore human communication to the universal language that humankind was said to have had at Babel, before the confusion of tongues described in the Old Testament book of Genesis. The large folio volume, printed in London, had an engraved title page that showed a ship sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules, as the Straits of Gibraltar were once called, and thus going beyond the lands known to the ancient world. The motto on the title page was taken from a prophecy in the Book of Daniel, translated in the King James Bible to read “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” The implication was that the discoveries in the new age of science along with the geographical discoveries in the Age of Exploration would lead humankind into a golden age.

The Novum Organum began with a personal statement, “Francis of Verulam reasoned thus with himself and judged it to be for the interest of the present and future generations that they should be made acquainted with his thoughts.” Bacon voiced his fear that the thoughts would die with him if they were not written down and made public. In the preface that followed, he explained that his great work would have six parts. The first was his survey of learning to date, which had not yet been translated from English. The second part was “The New Organum; or directions concerning the interpretation of nature,” and provided the method for what was to follow.

The third part would record the “histories” of all the natural and experimental sciences. The fourth would be a set of “instances” discovered about the sciences and pointing to further experiments. The fifth would be a list of axioms that could be inferred provisionally from these instances. The sixth, which would have to be written by Bacon’s heirs in a later age, would be the true science toward which he looked. This was a sign of modesty on Bacon’s part. His fragmentary notes for part three included 130 subjects for “histories.” Here were proposed histories of the elements he knew: fire, air, water, and earth. It would take a later age to talk about hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon.

The Novum Organum itself was divided into two books, each of which was written in a series of numbered paragraphs, called “aphorisms” in the translation. The first book discussed the nature of knowledge and the obstacles to knowledge, and among these obstacles included the “idols” that people fashion—distortions that can be tracked to human nature or to individual quirks, to the use of language or the abuse of a philosophical system. Philosophy;England The second book was a demonstration of the inductive method he proposed. Here, Bacon investigated the property of heat and created separate “tables” for studying the presence of heat, the absence of heat, and the increase or decrease of heat. He dedicated his work, once again, to King James. The king wrote a letter of thanks, promising to read the book, but probably never did.

Two centuries later, Thomas Macauley remarked, famously, that Bacon wrote philosophy like a lord chancellor. Bacon was actually appointed lord chancellor of England in 1618, reaching the peak of the legal profession and marking the end of a long ascent that had taken him from solicitor general to attorney general and lord keeper of the seal. Bacon thought he was in a unique position to dispense justice. At times in his writings, he seems quite highhanded as he presides over the arts and sciences. At times, he is dead wrong. For example, he is sometimes said to underestimate the importance of mathematics.

Bacon was made Lord Verulam in 1618, when he became lord chancellor, and he received the further title of Viscount Saint Albans in 1621. Later that year, he was accused of accepting bribes in court cases. He admitted his guilt and apologized profusely, but his public career was over. Banished from court by an act of Parliament, he was imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London. His family’s house in London was given to his old ally, the marquis of Buckingham Buckingham, first duke of (who would become duke of Buckingham in 1623). Bacon retired to the country house his father had built and married an heiress. He spent his last years making experiments and notes for experiments. He is said to have died of a chill he caught while conducting an experiment with ice.

An expanded Latin version of Advancement of Learning appeared in 1623, and the projected volume on natural history appeared posthumously as Sylva sylvarum
Sylva sylvarum (Bacon) (1627). Bacon never wrote the rest of his masterwork except in fragments, but he left a science-fiction story that suggests what his dream looked like toward the end. In New Atlantis
New Atlantis (Bacon) (1627), he imagined a kingdom of science, presided over by a second Solomon. King James was no Solomon; his grandson, Charles II, dabbled in chemistry, however, and became the first patron of the Royal Society. When the society’s official history was published in 1667, the frontispiece showed the lord chancellor seated in a room full of books and scientific instruments; at his feet was the motto artium instaurator, which may be translated “the restorer of science.”


Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum reversed the accepted, Aristotelian methodology of science. Aristotle advocated applying universal rules, known in advance, to specific instances in order to determine their scientific meaning. Bacon, on the other hand, advocated a new empiricism, observing nature in all its manifestations in order to deduce new hitherto unknown rules or principles. The Novum Organum, then, is an important part of the Scientific Revolution, in which Sir Isaac Newton would deduce the laws of gravitation and the heirs of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo would establish empirically that the earth was not the center of the universe. Although Bacon’s work was not a necessary precursor of any of these other thinkers’ triumphs, it was nevertheless a singular and influential expression of a crucial seventeenth century cultural trend, one that informed both the history of science and the broader philosophical Enlightenment of the next century.

Further Reading

  • Bacon, Francis. The New Organon and Related Writings. Edited by Fulton H. Anderson and translated by James Spedding. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1960. The standard translation with an excellent introduction by the editor.
  • Eiseley, Loren. The Man Who Saw Through Time. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Beautifully written by an American naturalist, this short book celebrates Bacon’s achievement. First published as Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma (1962).
  • Lynch, William T. Solomon’s Child: Method in the Early Royal Society of London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Describes how Royal Society members relied upon Bacon’s scientific method to perform and articulate their work.
  • Peltonen, Markku, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Collection of essays exploring Bacon’s philosophy of science, the classification of knowledge, religion, rhetoric, history, morality, and politics.
  • Snider, Alvin. Origin and Authority in Seventeenth-Century England: Bacon, Milton, Butler. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. This wide-ranging and often challenging book includes a detailed analysis of the Novum Organum.
  • Webster, Charles. The Great Instauration. London: Duckworth, 1975. Offers a detailed account of Bacon’s legacy to a century of revolution and apocalyptic thought, culminating in the formation of the Royal Society.
  • Whitney, Charles. Francis Bacon and Modernity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Drawing on literary theory and scholarship, the author shows how Bacon helped to shape the sense of what is modern.
  • Williams, Charles. Bacon. New York: Harper & Bros., 1933. Written by a novelist and poet, this classic biography re-creates Bacon’s intellectual life.
  • Wormald, B. H. G. Francis Bacon: History, Politics, and Science, 1561-1626. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Detailed study places Bacon’s thought in its historical context.

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Bacon, Francis